INDEPENDENT MEDIA by Steve Anderson
At the recent *CRTC hearing on traffic management (AKA Internet freedom), there was something different in the air. The room still screamed of bureaucracy: decorative flags at the front of the room, the plain suits, the ‘stakeholders’ and the stenographers. But this time around there was buzz in the room and that buzz was literally the Twitter of public discussion that had forced its way into the hearing.
The CRTC’s traffic management hearing attracted more than 11,000 comments, which, in itself, is relatively unheard of. While I stressed this point in my own presentation before the commission, the public’s comments played only a small part in a larger constellation of citizen engagement that appears to be collectively opening up the CRTC’s processes.
Storming the gates
In addition to the well-organized presentations made on behalf of their fellow citizens, Canadians made it very clear they were not about to sit by and allow the discussion to proceed with only the participation of the people in the room. Typically, citizen groups make their presentations, send out a press release and hope that the media relay the public-interest perspective to the public. In the best-case scenario, citizens are brought into a kind of representative-based discussion rather than into direct democracy.
Contrary to the structure of past hearings, in this case, the public engaged directly and left the media to either pick up on the conversation or not. Consumer advocates like Michael Geist and citizen groups such as Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) live-Tweeted and blogged the hearing, while citizens from across the country tuned in to discuss and debate the hearing.
The presence of the online participants was felt so strongly in the room that representatives from Telus began their presentation by giving a shout out to everyone on Twitter. Later in the hearing, Michael Geist invited citizens to post questions they thought the commission should ask Bell Canada. It appeared that at least one of the commissioners was following the conversation online and utilized citizen input when dealing with Bell.
The division between government and the people is breaking down. There is a movement toward openness taking shape in Canada where people are re-imagining government and citizenship, with a renewed relationship between the two. A new relationship where government decision making, as public policy consultant David Eaves puts it, is as “flat and transparent as possible that both nourishes and draws from its most valuable resource: its citizens.”
This is only the beginning
With regard to the CRTC hearing, what does all of it amount to? In the usual tokenistic fashion, the public was invited into the hearing, but this time citizens took it upon themselves to take the hearing out to the public.
People are no longer satisfied with ‘public consultations’ that are not truly engaging. Canadians have an appetite for more – for government institutions and their processes to be open and fully citizen-based in the first place. The CRTC seems to be evolving as a result of public pressure, albeit slowly, and one suspects its decisions will ultimately be all the better because of it.
It’s clear that Canadians are sick of decisions being made in their name that are not reflective of their interests. We’re not waiting for the government to figure this out. In the future, you can expect government agencies and institutions to be confronted with these issues over and over again, provided we have an open communications system that we can use to self-organize.
An open communications infrastructure is an essential component in this evolution of citizenship and government relations. How appropriate then that the first wall to break down should be the one between the communications regulator and the public.
*Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He contributed to Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media, and has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him at: